Patchwork-in-a-box: A Kurdish Answer

3rd March 2019 |
New World Summit

New World Summit design by Jonas Staal – http://newworldsummit.org/about/ and https://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/160

The old DIY was implicitly about infrastructure, establishing communication channels and networks, and personal liability and accountability.  The mistake would be to fetishize the artificial/stylistic affects of older DIY/independent cultures, and not learn from what made them powerful – an adroit and candid ethos of collective action.

An interview with Mat Dryhurst” (AQNB, 30 January 2015) as presented by Louis Center

My first WPWS talk introduced the possibility of porting any given Patchworks model with a ‘logistical gaze’ of P2P networks. This proposed neolithic temples as templates, which may have developed out of junctions in networks where agricultural goods were stored and only formalized later as shrines by religion, as with the Roman method of waymarking milestones.  This model or template was overlaid in modern communications networks built from Linux and open-source principles of Eric S. Raymond (ESR), software developer.  His book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999), echoed the development of foundational concepts in early temples, where the Cathedral represents a vertical and parochial organization, whereas the bazaar is more horizontal and decentralized.  The key difference in the two structures being discussed was based on competing packet-switch models of Transmission Control Protocol (connection-based) and User Datagram Protocol (not connection-based).  What ESR didn’t develop fully was the interdependence between the two, which is even more clear today with the recent acquisition of Github by Microsoft. Finally WPWS suggested modeling future Patchworks’ communications infrastructures off Secure Scuttlebutt (SSB) which includes a physical UDP model for P2P networks.  SSB provides an additional layer of security resolving problems of logistics discussed above.

git clone https://github.com/ssbc/patchwork

Evolving from the old days of pirating music using GNUtella-based platforms such as KaZaa and Limewire, a solution for porting patchworks came in the form of a beginner’s guide to the decentralized internet, a September article written by Berlin-based artist Lisa Blanning. Collaborating with other digital artists, such as Louis Center and Mat Dryhurst, the article proposed a combination of new platforms that have developed the decentralized web even further from IPFS (or InterPlanetary File System) using Beaker Browser built on the dat:// protocol (outside of http://) in addition to blockchain-enabled platforms such as Resonate, for music-sharing, and SSB for communications. I also explored the security-focused initiatives of Tactical Tech Collective who put together Security-in-a-box, a pre-packaged list of software and guides to help interested individuals in maintaining anonymity and security, similar to PRISM-BREAK.  The beauty of this kind of security is that it can work parallel to nation-state imposed security, and especially that niche Berliner, central European city-dwelling thinking, without ever opposing it.  For less fortunate decentralized internet users, SecureDrop was developed to provide a clean, secure and anonymous bucket to drop media without revealing the sender and also preventing the receiver from opening malicious code-embedded documents.

Since no decentralized internet should develop in isolation (or should it?), I took the next step for looking at prior case studies and quickly applied Patchwork templates to Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish confederations of eastern Syria.  The application of Patchwork for Middle Eastern solutions manifested in a 2017 article titled Turkey’s Patchwork Foreign Policy, ironically.  However, it outlines patchwork politics as a largely reactionist balance of power to maintain control of Turkey by Erdogan and his party, one in which macro- and micro-politics are contradictory as each new ‘patch’ solution opens another hole to plug.  Turning back to the ancient templates of civilization, the current situation in Syria and Middle East does resemble a patchwork as multi-colored as Joseph’s famous dreamcoat. The Kurds themselves, stretching across four nation-states in territory and with over 1 million abroad, largely in Germany, have initiated a similar degree of ‘patching’ in both senses: resilience-based community-building and make-shift politics.

[Neo]democratic [techno]confederalism

Playing on Justin Murphy’s Patchwork template calling for a ‘neofeudal techno-communism’, I found an apt new term for the Kurdish project in Eastern Syria: neodemocratic techno-confederalism.  The old form of non-state democracy outlined by Abdullah Öcalan in his 2005 Declaration of of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan, was “described as a kind of self-governance in contrast to administration by the nation-state.”1 It is composed of a “system of popularly elected administrative councils, allowing local communities to exercise autonomous control over their assets, while linking to other communities via a network of confederal councils.”2  Technically, it forms a bottom-up participatory democracy, in which local decisions are made at a local level with decisions affecting the entire Kurdish population living in Syria being made at the confederal councils.  Anthropologist and prominent anarchist, David Graeber, described the process in a video interview titled Syria and Anarchism, in which every neighborhood holds an assembly of elected members, comprised of at least of one man and one woman, alongside working groups on specific issues such as workers’ rights, where delegates convene in city councils, up to regional councils, and the parliamentary system of the territory.  Graeber summarized Öcalan’s thought process and reasoning for democratic confederalism in that “you can’t get rid of capitalism without getting rid of the state, and you can’t get rid of the state without getting rid of patriarchy.” Prior to the Islamic State, this form of democratic confederalism was practiced in Rojava, however harassed by Turkish military excursions to eradicate PKK members taking refuge in Syria, and only more fully brought to news media attention during the rise of ISIS in 2014.

Behind Öcalan’s concept and only developed further out during his time in prison is theories of Murray Bookchin and social ecology.  According to Bookchin, social ecology is a blend of “utopian philosophy of human evolution that combines the nature of biology and society into a third thinking nature beyond biochemistry and physiology.”  Debbie Bookchin, the daughter of the late Murray, recently summarized her father’s ideas and the current Rojava struggle in a 2018 New York Book review.  She also touches on the current environmental crisis stemming from differences in hierarchies, between genders, races, sexual orientations, etc.  The hierarchies ingrained (I use that word also in the agrilogistic sense) in our current civilization came about from institutionalization of power, and much like my introduction of templates, they “originated from the need of the elders in society to preserve their power as they aged by institutionalizing their status in the form of shamans, and later priests.” From this point, according to Bookchin, patriarchy was born.

Only recently, manifestation of the Syrian Kurds social ecological experiment came to the light of international communities with release of the Rojava PlⒶn to the internet.  I was introduced to the Rojava PlⒶn in Brussels in 2016, where a large community of Kurdish diaspora continue to protest the prison conditions of Öcalan.  However, looking back now in 2018, I see a shortlived project possibly taken down and Barbara Streisanded, only accessible via internet archives and referenced in old reddit conversations.  It has now been rebranded or completely fresh, following a familiar slogan in U.S. politics, resurfacing as Make Rojava Green Again.  This does sound promising, especially bringing the Kurdish Question back to the center of social ecology and the environmental crisis. However, the odd rebranding and reddit community merit a further look into the history of the Rojava Plan for lessons learned.

[Insert Dank Rojava Meme Here]

‘Dank Memes for Democratic Confederalist Dreams’ was deleted from FB, so we’ve moved over to twitter @MemesRojava

Taking a digital archaeological approach to unearth what lies at the core of the Rojava PlⒶn, I found a treasure trove of archived snapshots of the old websites with the domain names of rojavaplan.com and rojavaplan.org. Even looking at the current Make Rojava Green Again project, the site has changed substantially between 2018 and 2019 with the launch of the new book of the same name.  The original Rojava PlⒶn hosted a plethora of promising projects and various goals in order to reach, at its conception, self-sustainable food sovereignty. These projects aren’t far off from community garden setups for collectives in urban spaces, and the best thing was an obvious paradigm shift from old agrilogistic thinking of the Green Revolution toward mass industrial farming for everyone.  These projects looked to decentralize food-production, rather than centralize it as is the case for industrial farming. Considering this, the Kurdish plan looked to place food sovereignty above food security.  Below is the list of projects made public and transparent, built with an in-depth and informational wiki and therefore mutable by registered users in theory available to all:

Rojava PlⒶn

As the PlⒶn wiki appeared in early 2016:

And again in late 2016, showing significant expansion:

Later with a front-facing page for supporters appears:


For supporters and people based outside of the de facto territory, a set of requirements and requested skill sets were listed on the original page of Rojava PlⒶn before anyone should travel there.  It became clear, that in order to build food sovereignty, additionally, technological sovereignty was necessary. Communications networks were at the core of the Rojava PlⒶn and had been for the Kurdish population and peshmerga throughout the mountain territories they were defending. Öcalan comments that even the etymology of the word Kurd came from the Sumerian kur meaning mountain, thus contributing to the ecological make up of its people3.  For technological sovereignty, isolated on all sides by autocratic regimes, the Rojava PlⒶn didn’t reinvent the wheel, but turned to open-source.  With Linux at its core and OpenSource Ecology available, the PlⒶn skill sets expanded to include engineers and developers to build the infrastructure necessary for sustainable food sovereignty.

One example they built from was the non-Western makerspace culture of FabFi, originally started in Afghanistan.  FabFi is a free software platform designed to enable individuals and local communities to build wireless broadband infrastructure using off-the-shelf, commodity wifi gear. Similar mesh networking has been under development in the U.S. military since the 1980s. FabFi provides all the tools to:

  • Build a city-scale mesh network backbone with long and short range links
  • Provide wifi access direct to clients without CPE
  • Manage access control and bill customers by multiple methods (any day now)
  • Monitor network performance and utilization

Additionally, the PlⒶn called for further development of anti-state protocol, an encrypted asynchronous chat protocol, and proposed a promising open-source village, consisting of:

  • Biolab
  • School
  • Upcycling Station
  • Makerspace
  • Hackerspace
  • Library

So what happened? Toward the end of 2017 the page brought you to an ERROR 404 and the message “RojavaPlan is closed. For information on the fertilizer project, please see the Rojava Economics Committee. We will add more information soon for people who wish to participate in the economic projects. Thanks.”  Digging into the ambitious technological projects being introduced to the PlⒶn between 2015-2016, the project showed a robust level of skilled engineers and developers already collaborating to build it out. It wasn’t hard to find alternate accounts of Rojava in testimonies of those like libbitcoin developer, Amir Taaki.  Wired and several other fringe media did a piece on Taaki’s time in Rojava, providing his perspective of being forced onto the frontline despite a rich skillset in coding.  He’s quite a controversial figure for his development in the bitcoin community. Additionally, reports of his account portraying his Rojava experience interrupting the 2016 London anarchist bookfair surface, as well.  It seems that Amir Taaki was in Rojava during the time of the expansion of the wiki and his last Github contribution was also 2015, although not conclusive, the direction toward cryptocurrencies was likely his doing.  Reports also suggest that some controversial literature were also placed in the Library, which only a 2016 version exists today in the archive.

What started in 2015 as a social ecologist utopia in eastern Syria appears to have ended up as a Berlin squat failing to meet the scalability of international and Kurdish daily reality: the crucible of war, including between both state and non-state actors where in the end, every man, woman, and child must fight.  Where the Kurds of Rojava continue on, many other Kurdish factions have made small concessions of recognizing or interacting with dominant state powers, with the PKK in Turkey utilizing violence against the state and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) contending with Baghdad. Additionally, the KRG has been negotiating with the Erdogan to bring about a more resolute relationship between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.  These negotiations fail to address the ongoing ideals proposed by the reformed Öcalan.  Even worse, although largely disputed, the YPG have been accused by multiple NGOs of child conscription.  It seems that this struggle (as with every war) has no good guys.

At its foundation, it’s easy to understand why the rebranding to Make Rojava Green Again (MRGA) occurred. Since the days of old Roman damnatio memoriae, the act of erasing the past rings elements of fascism (however, according to Bendell, Relinquishment follows Resilience).  Are we missing out on valuable lessons learned from the past trials of Rojava? As with any squat or community garden, a single spoiler can worm into the organization and depending on circumstance, desolve it.  With all the development in food and technology sovereignty, it seems the main aspect lacking is social and psychological sovereignty: resiliency, consistent with the writings of Öcalan putting society at the center. MRGA has made additional changes from 2018 to 2019 with the release of its new book on the same topic. A crowd-funding page has also been opened. It does appear to be moving more toward a whole systems approach from the bottom up, with a true social ecology of social ecology.  However, with the release of the social contract by the Internationalist Commune, it seems the system leans toward hierarchy and statehood.  At its core, the Internationalist Commune called for a simplified skillset, returning to community building, and below is a comparison of the requirements requested by both the PlⒶn and MRGA:

Requirements

Rojava Plan (2016 – 2017)

  • Agricultural experts
  • Architects
  • Artists
  • Business People
  • Electrical Engineers
  • Engineer
    • Fridges, mills, refineries, … everything is needed
    • Big need to construct new factories and re-activate old ones
    • OpenSource Ecology philosophy suits Rojava economy
    • Need to build/maintain machines like tractors or workshop machines
  • Health Workers
  • Scientists, Media, Technical Translators, Stuff
  • Internet infrastructure from construction of antennas to networking.
  • Programmers to help create information systems, and teach this knowledge.
  • Linux and opensource enthusiasts to teach in schools.
  • Electronics experts to help create a local electronics industry.
  • Interest in these projects: Bitcoin, 3D printing, Linux, guifi.net

Make Rojava Green Again (2018 – )

  • Agriculture experts
  • Ecological activists, people with experience of permaculture and green/ecological autonomous projects
  • Engineers
  • Hydrologists
  • Language teachers, translators
  • Doctors and other medical personnel
  • People with experience of community organising
  • Core aims:
    • Women’s liberation
    • Internationalism
    • Ecology
    • Media
Social media post on the launch of the new website by @rojavacommune

Communications infrastructure becomes the means of resiliency

Returning to Louis Center’s statement regarding the development of a “candid ethos of collective action” being the focus of DIY culture, rather than the outcomes and “artificial affects” they create, in other words, the message is in in the medium, reinvoking Harold Innis’ theory of communications.  This statement exemplifies the resiliency of such DIY networks, which gathered in order to build out infrastructure and communication links, while incorporating integrity and sense of ownership in the technology being developed. Similarly, the early development of the Rojava PlⒶn stressed communications and infrastructure first, but wasn’t able to scale beyond.  Following Innis’ theory, the medium of communication reflects its ability to traverse not only time and space, but also vertical and horizontal levels of society. In my previous discussion, I explored Innis’ research comparing the mediums of ancient Mesopotamian culture to new empires such as Rome, as well as what occurred when the “space-bound print culture” of European traders met the “time-bound oral culture” of aboriginal hunters4.  Applying Innis’ theory to Rojava, it is necessary to introduce an ecological approach to the communication.

If the initial Rojava PlⒶn stressed digital forms of communication, and incentivized electrical engineers and developers, rather than librarians and stone masons, than the pitfalls of the first PlⒶn may be deduced.  MRGA shows a strong emphasis on media specialists before any engineering role, and likewise, turning sharply from Murphy’s concept of a patchwork incentivizing coders and developers to be the next Muskian philosopher-kings, building the medium and thereby the communications infrastructure of a patchwork prepares it for resiliency and continuity.  The goal of a Kurdish Ubuntu must be at the forefront of the fight, in addition to other forms of communication should any long term movement overcome its current fate. The Kurds have shown again and again their ability to survive the most crushing aspects of war, but as democratic confederalism goes international, so too must its media. In such a quest, perhaps the best and most resilient medium is organic. Fetishizing this connection I’m reminded of James Cameron’s Avatar, where a deeply evolved, organic network of plant-animal neural connections (Tsaheylu) links every species across the planet of Pandora.  This is nothing short of what might be possible with a patchwork that sets communications and ecology at its core.

For more on Kurdish patchworking turn to Patrick Jennings at synthetic zero, who further elaborated on my co-presenter, Michael James’ discussion on deep adaptation.


1. Abdullah Öcalan, The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan: Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution, and Democratic Confederalism. (London: Pluto Press, 2017) pp. 45-46.

2. Paul White, Democratic Confederalism and the PKK’s Feminist Transformation, in The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains (London: Zed Books, 2015), pp. 126–149.

3. Öcalan 2017. p. 2

4. Innis, Harold. (1951) The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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